Another day, another infectious disease outbreak and another round of bad medical advice and political analysis from the same, extremely sweaty cast of characters. As monkeypox cases have begun to be reported in the United States and Europe, the always overheated personalities of the anti-vaccine world are already vowing not to believe in—or take any steps to protect themselves from—the highly contagious virus.
Monkeypox cases have recently been reported outside Central and West Africa, where the disease is endemic; one possible source of the outbreak is sex at two raves in Spain and Belgium. While the situation is novel and therefore worrying, at this point there is every reason to believe at this point that monkeypox is not another COVID-19 situation: Experts say the disease is spread through close contact, there’s no evidence of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic transmission—part of what’s made COVID so hard to control—and is not often fatal. But the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is warning that monkeypox could become entrenched in Europe if it’s not addressed quickly, and given the fragile state of the U.S. healthcare system, that’s not what we need here either. The World Health Organization is not advising countries to undertake mass monkeypox vaccinations right now, but is instead recommending that people attending events practice good hygiene, safe sex, and wash their hands regularly.
In other words, the situation calls for vigilance, a lack of panic or stigma, and good communication between public health agencies and the people they serve. Instead, of course, people like Marjorie Taylor Greene are using monkeypox to yell about Bill Gates, Chinese influencers are accusing the U.S. of unleashing it as a bioweapon, and leading anti-vaccine personalities in the U.S. and Europe are declaring the whole thing to be a big hoax perpetrated by the ever-industrious and vaccine-mad Deep State.
On Telegram, big conspiracy and anti-vaccine personalities like David Icke and Larry Cook are sharing messages from smaller accounts that are skeptical of the monkeypox “narrative,” as well as their own potted analysis of the situation. Because the outbreak is in its early stages, the countervailing narrative that conspiracy mongers can more or less agree on has yet to shape, meaning that we’re being treated to whatever fervid thing occurs to each of them individually.
Those theories are all over a truly addled map. Cook, a major purveyor of anti-vaccine misinformation, shared a post from an account called “Forecast 432HZ,” which often re-posts global news headlines with conspiratorial commentary. “The swamp appears to be desperate and is running out of ideas to keep us under control and living in fear,” the account wrote, under a headline about the EU ECDC recommending that countries track and isolate monkeypox cases. “Won’t work this time.” David Icke, best known for his enthusiasm for 12-foot tall lizard beings, shared a message from someone calling themselves “Ice Age Farmer,” which speculated that the monkeypox warning is part of a #WarOnMeat, as they put it. And QAnon promoter and faux journalist Dustin Nemos ran a blog post speculating that the WHO is trying to press countries to agree to a new treaty on pandemics by spinning up a new pandemic threat. “The perfect storm seems to have come along at the very moment it was needed to justify the WHO’s desire for a new treaty,” he wrote.
Like many good conspiracy theories, Nemos’ is based on a grain of truth and a veneer of genuine political analysis. WHO nations are indeed in discussions for a theoretical and far-off pandemic treaty, which was announced in December 2021; recommendations from an intergovernmental negotiating body will be presented at the 2024 World Health Assembly. In a November op-ed in the British Medical Journal, 32 ministers of health from all over the world argued that a global pandemic treaty could help create more equitable access to vaccines and therapeutic treatments and help break the cycle of what they call “panic and neglect” that helped make COVID so devastating. In the meantime, though, the very prospect of a pandemic treaty is creating instant and furious online backlash from people including the ‘90s band Right Said Fred and, of course, Tucker Carlson, who accused the Biden Administration last week of being “very close to handing the World Health Organization power over every aspect, the intimate aspects, of your life.” (That is not what’s going on, but ivermectin enthusiast and COVID vaccine skeptic Bret Weinstein is also promoting a similar argument.)
Doomsday predictions about how monkeypox will be used, then, slot neatly into an ongoing and very profitable freakout about the World Health Organization and fears about one world government or global control of the United States, a mealy pablum that people like Tucker feed their audiences on a regular basis. And, of course, it can be spun into hostility and distrust of monkeypox vaccinations before such vaccinations are even widely recommended, which is precisely what the self-proclaimed “Health Ranger” Mike Adams of the ultra-conspiratorial website Natural News is doing. In a remarkably homophobic article, he called monkeypox a disease spread by the “filthy sexual habits” of gay men (anyone can get monkeypox), and insisted that it presents “virtually zero risk to the world,” adding, “The media hysteria surrounding the topic is just the latest effort to try to spread fear and panic in order to push — you guessed it — the inevitable monkeypox vaccine that will be forced onto everyone if they can conjure up enough panic.” (Emphasis his. There has been remarkably little media panic around monkeypox, except from people like Carlson who use it to sell ads for patriotic pillows and fiber supplements; the last two years have, in fact, made everyone a lot better at covering public health.)
Other usual suspects are attempting to force monkeypox into their ongoing COVID conspiracy theorizing; Alex Jones, predictably, has claimed that monkeypox is linked to COVID vaccines, while lesser InfoWars host Owen Shroyer, doing his best Jones impression and occasional monkey imitations, claimed that a global “they” predicted the monkeypox outbreak to the day and that Bill Gates would use it to further push vaccination.
Meanwhile, QAnon-and-UFO guy Jordan Sather claimed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been “doing gain of function research on monkeypox viruses too,” adding, “Nothing to see there… again.” That theory can, again, be linked back to ultra-conspiratorial and partisan actors plucking a shred of data out of ether and spinning it into a dazzling coat of many colors of bullshit. Specifically, the idea that the Wuhan lab created monkeypox strains originated in a news outlet called The National Pulse, which was created by former Breitbart London editor-in-chief Raheem Kassan and a woman named Natalie Winters, the site’s “investigative reporter,” whose work is uniquely focused on the supposed threats of China and the Chinese Communist Party. This particular theory is so baseless that even the ultra-right wing Spectator magazine, which has promoted unfounded lab leak theories repeatedly, quickly debunked it.
There is, in all of this, an exhausting sense of deja vu: at this point, the world is not just better versed on how diseases work, but how they can be used to spread profitably quantities of fear, panic, and bigotry. The biggest question with the monkeypox outbreaks is not whether a coalition of 12-foot lizards wielding syringes are trying to fool us all; it’s if a pandemic-weary world has learning anything, at all, about how to respond to a bonfire, before it becomes a roaring blaze.
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